by Michael Idato
In the character of Ross Poldark, actor Aidan Turner was handed a gift: a complex man, writ large from one of Britain’s great novel series, by Winston Graham.
But the television series, which now glides into its second season, was adapted for the screen by Debbie Horsfield, whose work has predominantly been in contemporary dramas such as Cutting It and True Dare Kiss.
That contemporary sensibility, explains Turner, permeates every part of the Poldark saga.
“It gives her certain freedom,” Turner says. “We don’t want to see a modern period drama in any way, we want to keep true to the world we’re in, but Debbie writes really, really fast and her changes or visions are quick. She’s not precious about her writing in a sense.”
In the first season of Poldark, the show’s title character – Ross Poldark – returned from the American War of Independence to find his family’s estate in chaos: his father is dead, and the great love of his life Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is engaged to his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller). The restoration of Poldark’s fortunes dominated the narrative of the first season.
“You see him growing up,” Turner says. “He’s coming back from the war and he is young and quite immature in a lot of his responses to certain things, just impulsive and positively decisive about things that he should be really investing in without emotion sometimes. It gets him into trouble a lot.”
In the second season, Poldark is a man who is beginning to understand more the world in which he inhabits, Turner says. “I think he’s become a better listener. Maybe better at delegating work. Delegating the load. The world doesn’t rest on his shoulders and he’s beginning to see that.”
The first season concluded in a tumultuous fashion: an epidemic of diphtheria, claiming the lives of many, and, after rival George Warleggan’s boat is wrecked, and later plundered, Ross Poldark finds himself charged with both murder and wrecking.
“He’s a family man now, and dealing with a deep sense of loss,” Turner says. “I can’t imagine how difficult it might be, but I have to and I have to think of how this has affected him. Does he become more responsible or less responsible or what fits emotionally? What attributes does he shut off and what does he become more sensitive to?”
His reactions, he adds, are now almost instinctive. “When you’re playing a character and you show up everyday and you’re on set everyday, I guess it’s just … by osmosis or something, it just seeps into you,” Turner says. “If you’ve played stuff before, you subconsciously steer clear of playing it. So you try a different approach. It all just grows up together.”
Prior to taking on the series Turner had not read the Poldark books, which were written by Graham in two instalments, between 1945 to 1953 and then 1973 to 2002. A dozen novels in total were written, mostly set in the late 18th century, and the final books in the early 19th century.
Everything, Turner says, landed on his lap at once. “There was a knock on the door and a FedEx guy handed me four books and eight scripts with a note saying, we’d like you to play this role,” he recalls. “It’s a surreal moment. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. As I was taking this package off the FedEx guy, my agent called and she said, this might happen.”
Turner had no fear dipping into the books, though he, like writer Debbie Horsfield, refrained from watching the earlier BBC adaptation of the books, which aired between 1975 and 1977, and starred Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark.
“I was reading the book simultaneously with the script as well, so I was keeping an eye on what was going on and how it was related to our screenplay,” Turner says. “I wasn’t worried. It seemed to enhance it to be honest. From the first script, I thought, I trust this writer, she really has a sense of what’s going on. She’s not trying to make something that’s not there.”
Turner describes Horsfield as “a fan” of the Poldark world. “Her ego hasn’t got carried away with this,” he adds. “She’s a fan and it showed immediately. [In the books] the characters don’t speak an awful lot and when they do, Debbie almost always keeps that dialogue. Finding the the rest of it, as a writer must be very, very hard, but she just gets it straight away.”
At the heart of the story is a love thwarted – Ross and Elizabeth are, in their own way, not unlike Darcy and Elizabeth, or even Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan – though the path to happiness in Poldark is somewhat bumpier than in other great period novels.
“It’s certainly a big driving force,” Turner says. “He likes to be in control. He likes to know what the terminus or the outcome is on a certain situation, he wants to guide it and he wants to be at the helm of that ship. [But] it can’t be that way with Elizabeth and Demelza because the relationships are constantly changing.”
In the second season of Poldark, the story is several years into the marriage of Ross and Demelza and yet, notes Turner, Ross cannot get past his great love for Elizabeth. “It’s uncomfortable for Ross to still not maybe have put to bed, for want of a better phrase, the feelings he has for Elizabeth,” Turner says.
“He’s reached a certain point of understanding that’s useful for him, but it’s something that does gets him into trouble constantly,” Turner adds. “He’s like a lot of men I know.”
There is a pause. Are you saying he’s like you, I ask? “Yeah, maybe,” Turner says, laughing.